The Night the Tooth Fairy Goofed Up
When my youngest son lost his third tooth, the Tooth Fairy forgot to show up.
The next night she got a little crazy attempting to make up for her mistake. She left a note under my son's pillow with some sad excuse about being exhausted after working part-time and taking too many classes in Tooth Fairy school. Instead of money, she left him a dirty sock and a handful of used Legos under his pillow.
My son laughed and then wrote a kind letter back, patiently but straightforwardly explaining that a dirty sock and used Legos didn't meet the going exchange rate for an incisor.
The next night, the Tooth Fairy left another note thanking my son for his help, and this time she left money. Once again, all was right in the land of make believe.
I remembered this story several weeks ago after attending a forum in which two philosophy professors discussed the topic of suffering as potential evidence for or against the existence of God. Thankfully, the participants were humble and intelligent enough that the conversation didn't turn into one of those embarrassing Ken Ham / Bill Nye debacles. It was an honest discussion, genuine, and meaty, and I think we all learned something that night.
It was easy for me to respect both professors, so I felt safe asking the atheist a sincere question during the response time. Amid the formal epistemological concerns, the proofs, the claims of empiricism, faith, and rationalism, my question probably seemed a little odd. But I couldn't shake it--maybe because I'm an INFJ and intuitive, maybe because I liked him too much not to ask.
"When you were a little boy, did you ever believe in fairy tales? And do you ever miss them now?"
Some of the audience members looked at me oddly, but I think he got my meaning, at least. I told him briefly about my growing academic disillusionment with pure rationalism and my recent interest in the German romantic philosophers. I asked this because as he had spoken, it had seemed to me that he wasn't driven by curiosity alone but also disappointment.
He admitted that yes, he had been more romantically-inclined as a child. He had even considered going into ministry as a young man. But questions rose in his faith, and eventually, he had come to the point of living as a nonbeliever.
I'm not going to critique his answer here or even try to explain what I think he meant. What I would like to do instead is identify with his disappointment.
In a broken world like ours, it's not unsual for a person to slip hope in God under his pillow one night and wake up the next morning to find a dirty sock and a handful of used Legos instead of the expected Divine revelation.
This hurts, and our pain can cause us to wonder if God has forgotten us. We might wonder if He is cruel. We might wonder if He even exists. All of this is normal for a postmodern thinker's personality, and if you haven't had that happen yet, you may at some point in the future. As that moment comes and goes, whether we turn back to faith or start stepping away from it, the disappointment of such an experience can be hard to shake.
In part because I teach teenagers who question constantly, and in part because of the pain I've seen in the world, I tend to spend a significant amount of time thinking about the disappointments of faith. Because I have grown up inside an evangelical system that tends to promise certain quick results from Christianity, I think it is inevitable that believers will feel a little lost as false expectations prove themselves untrue.
For example, Tim Keller's _Making Sense of God_ addresses the fact that we tend to suggest to young people that "all nonbelievers will be more selfish, unscrupulous, and unhappy than believers." We also warn the young man that "premarital sex would make him feel empty an unfulfilled." But then, Keller asks, what if this young person "falls in with a band of well-adjusted, altruistic, honest, and committed secular people?" Or what if he finds that the experience of sex "makes him feel wonderful and alive?"
Yes, there will likely come hard consequences for these choices later. But in the immediate wake of bad decisions, even for several years, there can be a sense of relief.
In such cases, we don't face the regular sadness of God refusing to bibbety-bobbety-boo lavish abundance into our lives, but a strange sadness that's wrapped up in a paradox. We find that defying Him doesn't sting like we always had been told it would. In fact, experiments in autonomy can feel liberating -- at least for a while. And despite the physical or intellectual pleasures of rebellion, an old, sweet part of us grieves, because there are implications to such discoveries.
This is part of the reason I love how my young son charged straight into the imaginary world claiming the rules that transcend reality, even when his experience hadn't lined up with those expectations. And yeah, maybe I'm reading too much into this, because our scenario was playful. It's definitely not a 1:1 parallel with engagement with a real God. But if I squint my eyes and stare at it, I see how there was something healthy about how honest he was with his disappointment.
He didn't try to break the fairy tale and throw it away just because there was a bump in the road. He charged back into the story we were telling together and said, "What's going on here?"
I love that we have a God who welcomes this sort of childlike, honest response to our disappointment. In fact, one of the ways that the people of God are distinguished throughout the Bible is in how they come running back to God with their frustrations.
The Psalms are full of David's cries. God, where are you? God, have you dropped me?
We see Thomas's devastation after his leader was brutalized, so soured and sad that it took touching Christ's wounds to cut through the doubt. He refused anything but a real encounter with Jesus to satisfy his need for validation.
We see Paul explaining a time when he was so discouraged in the faith that he despaired of life itself. This is a prime leader of the church, God's emissary to the Gentile world, and yet he was able to be 100% honest with God about his doubts.
It's not that God's children never have doubts, it's that they take their doubts to the Creator. This is the emotional honesty that the "fairy tale" of the gospel allows.
And just so you know... I write "fairy tale," not because I believe the gospel is untrue (for it is true), but because this one story is the prime redemptive narrative to which all good tales (often subconsciously) point. It is the ultimate happily ever after. It is the Cinderella story behind the Cinderella story.
The gospel will not shatter like glass if we drop it. God is not a delicate being, fragile as the religious propaganda of our time. He stands ready to welcome our disappointment into His heart.
How much I have to learn from a child returning to the Tooth Fairy! Because even though my kid knew good and well that this particular narrative was play, he was still making a statement about how stories ultimately work. "This isn't right! I'm disappointed! And I know enough to know this exchange doesn't end like this!" was his claim. In the trajectory of this matter, my son was dead on.
God's answers may not be what we expect, neither immediate nor direct. Some mornings we may wake up to find what feels like a pile of junk waiting for us, even after we've approached Him multiple times. But we need not fear being brutally honest with the Lord who makes all things beautiful in his time. The author of the human narrative seems to have a soft spot for children who come to him asking raw questions. I don't think the humble seeker of truth, the expectant heart, the pilgrim who knows how stories work well enough to keep turning pages, will ever be turned away.